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January 28, 2003
When NBA Los Angeles Lakers superstar Shaquille O'Neal said, "Tell Yao Ming: Ching-chong-yang-wah-so," he claimed it was a joke.
Asian Americans aren't laughing.
O'Neal uttered the words last June on Fox Sports Net's "Best Damned Talk Show, Period" in reference to the Houston Rockets' new center (and recent Chinese immigrant), Yao Ming.
The fact that no one either heard or complained about it then shows how acceptable Asian slurs are in our society. So it was no surprise to hear "The Tony Bruno Show," a nationally syndicated sports talk show, re-air the slur last December.
This time Irwin Tang, a college instructor at Austin Community College in Texas, heard it. "I couldn't believe my ears," Tang said. "And then I just felt sick."
Why was the "Bruno Show" playing Shaq's racial slur?
"Shaq's comments are racist," Evan Mandelbaum, Bruno's producer, admitted to me. "But does that make him a racist?"
Mandelbaum's casual air reflected the media's and society's general reaction. It wasn't until Tang placed an op-ed in the ethnic publication Asian Week that anyone realized the slurs were harmful.
NBA commissioner David Stern was quick to say the comments were "insensitive," but not "intentionally mean-spirited."
Shaq himself issued a highly qualified apology. "If I offended anybody, I apologize," O'Neal told reporters. "To say I'm racist against Asians is crazy. I'm an idiot prankster. I said a joke. It was a 70-30 joke. Seventy percent thought it was funny."
That's a problem. Most of the media gave Shaq a "get out of jail free" card on this one.
Tom Tolbert, a former NBA benchwarmer who is now a color analyst for ESPN, told a national audience that Shaq was just trying to be funny. "I think we all need to learn to laugh at ourselves a little more," said Tolbert.
The media saw racial slurs against Asian Americans as worthy of debate. For instance, instead of an outright denunciation of Shaq's slur, ESPN sought balance as if racism could have a positive side. Would they invite the Klan to debate a fried chicken remark in reference to black Americans? No. ESPN and other media seem to understand black vs. white racism. They don't get racism against Asians.
"(Shaq's comments) feed a fire of prejudice," said Phil Ting, executive director of the Asian Law Caucus based in San Francisco. "It creates an environment where Asian Americans are made to feel uncomfortable and defensive, and that's exactly the intent of many hate crimes."
The National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium has put the number of anti-Asian hate crimes in the United States at between 400 to 500 a year. In the three months following Sept. 11, the organization documented nearly 250 cases alone, including two murders.
And in Washington state, federal authorities continue to hold a man in connection with a plot to kill Gov. Gary Locke. The man allegedly didn't approve of Locke's Chinese heritage.
Shaq's unpunished comments send the wrong message. "It gives license, a green light to others that says that kind of action is acceptable," said Diane Chin of Chinese for Affirmative Action, also based in San Francisco.
The Organization of Chinese Americans has now joined the fight for a more formal apology. An opportunity could arise if Shaq is named as Yao Ming's back-up in the upcoming NBA All-Star game.
But there may need to be more than one apology before the end of Yao's rookie season. Lakers head coach Phil Jackson was asked last week if O'Neal minded being out-voted for the game and playing second string to Yao. "I don't think it bothers him in the least," Jackson told the Los Angeles Times. "He understands fully the NBA has put out four forms of (All-Star ballots in) Mandarin, Cantonese, Pekingese and also Hong Kong-ese."
Only Mandarin and Cantonese are languages. People in Hong Kong can speak either. But Peking is now known as Beijing, and "Pekingese" (or rather Pekinese) is a term that usually describes a breed of dog.
Such is the level of ignorance about Asians and Asian Americans in this country. It's almost laughable. Almost.
Emil Guillermo is a columnist for Asian Week and Sfgate.com. His book, "Amok," won an American Book Award (Monkey Tales Press/Asian Week Books, 1999). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.